A man has built himself a bubble bath out of balloons. He is asking two teenage girls—who have volunteered for this, but still—to stand in the bathtub and sing a song, which they do, until it’s clear that everyone is miserable.
He hands one of them an inflated “washboard,” and says, “You’re going to have to work today,” and immediately visibly regrets his choice of words.
Eventually, a producer gives a signal that the girls are allowed to get out of the tub and go back to their families. And they do, quickly, and joylessly.
I’m behind the group, sitting next to a clown who has been spinning a plate for so long that I’m not sure he remembers he’s doing it. We’ve been waiting here for hours, like the poor dove a magician keeps in his pocket for six hours, waiting for the opportune time to pull it out to impress a child who will most likely be more scared than they are amazed. And we all chose to be here because we’re all auditioning to be on television.
You’ve undoubtedly watched one of this brand of talent shows—The Voice, maybe, or So You Think You Can Dance?—and thought, These people are god awful; I could easily do better. Every American has. It’s why the shows are successful—because we can feel the simultaneous tugging of jealousy that we aren’t the ones who waited in a year-long line in the rain after traveling 4,000 miles to the closest audition city, with nothing but a liter bag full of craisins and a dream, and the begrudging recognition that some of these people actually are quite good.
Anyway, I’ve felt those things too, which is why I found myself auditioning for the misfit cousin of the talent contests, the one that allows anyone to do literally anything for any reason: America’s Got Talent, which is currently under fire after a couple claimed that new host Tyra Banks “humiliated” their daughter during filming. I did this to see what it was like for journalism, but also, just to see.
When you register online to audition for the show, you have to choose a talent from a drop down menu that lists your standard selection of reality show talents, and, the dangerous “Other.” To make my decision, I decide to poll my Jezebel colleagues: Should I a) sing a song; b) do a dance; or c) perform broad, hacky standup? They unanimously vote for standup, which, in retrospect, is a blessed relief, since it is by far the easiest thing for me to get together, and doesn’t involve any spandex.
I write a five minute “set,” heavily relying on the idea that I’ll be performing in front of the show’s celebrity judges, Howie Mandel, Mel B, Heidi Klum, and Simon Cowell (or at least pretending to audition in front of them) and can do some gentle, family-friendly sparring. Then, I largely forget that I’ll one day actually have to perform it.
But if time does anything, it passes, and on Friday, January 27 I wake up dutifully at 6 a.m. and make my way to Queens College in Flushing to humiliate myself in front of America’s most talented and most judgmental. The day was interminably long and boring, and in the recounting that follows, I’ve spared no detail. Enjoy.
I am dropped off by a hideously expensive Lyft on the exact wrong side of campus, even though I follow the AGT-provided instructions precisely, and see no sign of any anything show-related. I am forced to ask a security guard the one thing you hope to never ask anyone—that is, “Where are the America’s Got Talent auditions?”—and after some brief but confusing instructions, I make my way almost fifteen minutes across campus to try to find the gym with the “green roof.” Along the way, two lost-looking teens ask if I know the way to auditions. I say, “Yes, I am going there too,” and they follow me. Still, I know only vaguely where I am going—toward the green building—and inadvertently lead them into an abandoned-feeling industrial alley, at which point they look at each other (I see them do it) and at me and asked, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” All too aware of my big adult body that has led minors into an alley, I accidentally yell that yes I did!, that it’s just a few buildings away, and I’m feeling freaked out too!
When we get to the gym (the girls rapidly abandon me and fly inside) there aren’t any visible crowds lined up, as I had expected from those iconic pan shots of thousands of cheering prospective auditioners in coats and hats, and, like, one of them is tap dancing on the pavement and everyone is laughing and clapping along, and maybe another one is doing vocal warm ups and another is trying to make a woman laugh with insult comedy. But here, there were only a handful of AGT employees in AGT shirts and a group of 13 teens with their parents. Disappointing.
It’s unclear whether or not this remains the scene outside the auditorium for the rest of the day, or if crowds suddenly manifest themselves out of thin air for that shot. Because I will spend the next six hours indoors, being shuttled from holding pen to waiting area to bathroom stall and back.
To enter the auditorium, you need a wristband—pink if you’re an auditioner; green if you’re “support.” I ask for one pink wristband please, show my audition confirmation number, and said no, ma’am, I don’t have any support. I am a 27-year-old single woman, off to humiliate myself in front of an-as of-yet unidentified panel of producers and possibly celebrities, and I am all alone, making it seem all the more deadly serious.
Once inside the college gym, you get yourself wanded by some kind of tricked-out security guard, and walk through a few halls and up stairs until you reach the gym, and this is where the shit gets real—when I arrive, there are already a couple hundred auditioners already milling around. First, we are told to wait in a mile-long (probably) roped-off line area to officially register and get stickers with our numbers on it (mine, for proof, ends up being 1209518). I wind my way back and forth and back and forth through the line like a good rule-follower, while other bitch moms and their bitch kids stepped over the ropes, cutting me in line and probably stealing my chance at fame, too. An Orthodox Jewish father and daughter step boldly in front of me as I round a corner, which is not very Godly. Another particularly bold mother with a group of children holding instruments (a family band?) walk straight to the front of the line and yell, “WE SIGNED UP FOR AN AUDITION TIME.” But in the land of AGT, she learns, audition times don’t matter. Everyone—no matter how much they’ve got talent—is at the mercy of the line, and of the 50 or so producers and show volunteers guiding us around like cows being led to the killing room.
In this first line I see: Approximately 100 young boys with gelled-up hair, guitars, and just terrible attitudes, an unsupervised seven-year-old, several child dance teams (one with matching uniforms that had affixed to them names including “Riley” and “Shaelyn” and “Katrina” in rhinestones), and a man in a cowboy hat and leather jacket (a character, if you will). Of the maybe 200 people I wait in line with, only a handful are adults. Is this a show for children? I am the only person in a sweater as far as my eyes can see. In their costumes, everyone around me looks like they’ve been plucked directly from Matty B’s YouTube channel, or the Michael Jackson Academy of Professional Children, and I look like I’m going to a Christmas party. Can I be arrested for wearing such a pervy outfit choice around all these minors? Maybe, but then again, so can Howie Mandel.
As I reach the front of this line, I stand beside a dad and his devastatingly shy-looking teenage daughter, who holds a folder (probably containing sheet music) with the words “Pereoid 4″ written on the front. I love her, and I wish her confidence and for some kind of Susan Boyle moment. But before I can introduce myself to her and maybe pat her on the head, I am called up by a volunteer, show my ID and documents (I am praised for being “so prepared”), am given a sticker with my number on it and several forms to fill out. I take these forms to yet another holding area in the same room, this one just five rows of people sitting on the floor like animals, if you care.
I’m realizing at this point that I can’t name a single act made famous, however fleetingly, by this show, except for the man who jumps from a very high height into a baby swimming pool (Professor Splash, I see now) and Nick Cannon. If someone asked me what AGT star I loved, like I was in an interview, I’d have to say baby pool man. This is not an ideal situation if one wants to be viewed as a real contender and not a spy. It’s also not ideal if I want to be viewed as a journalist who properly prepared for her assignment. But my heart is filled with regrets much more pressing than, “I wish I had watched more episodes of this stupid talent contest,” and so, I move on.
In this new line, I am so overwhelmed by the number of faces and bodies in the room that I begin to feel anxious and nauseous, like I am floating in an uninterrupted sea of flesh, while the flesh yells, “I am passionate about SINGING-SONGWRITING!” To cope, I turn my attention to my forms. The main one asks you general information about you and your talent, clearly with the intention of guiding producers to auditioners with a special kind of tear-jerky or inspiring story. I fill my own form out in the following way:
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM: To make it through this audition without crying or vomiting.
WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU OVERCOME IN PURSUING YOUR ACT: Crippling shyness, a generally weak body.
TALK ABOUT YOUR BIGGEST SUPPORTER: My mom is a therapist and has given me free diagnoses for my whole life.
WHY IS THIS TALENT IMPORTANT TO YOU: We must all laugh in the face of terror.
WHAT OTHER TALENTS DO YOU HAVE: Truly not one.
In front of me, I see a 12ish-year-old theater girl filling out the form with her mother. She is too young to have developed any sort of filter or shame, and is shouting her earnest answers out for all to hear.
“My dream?!” she says as she writes, “My dream is to become a SINGER. A SINGER or an AC-TA-RESS.”
“This talent is important because… Because I enjoy it.” She thinks a minute and then writes instead, “Because I bring joy to others.”
This scene is soundtracked by another similarly-aged girl belting highly obnoxious theater tunes. Another girl rips off her outerwear to reveal a sparkly leotard. Somehow, I have stumbled into the holding pen at Stagedoor Manor, I guess, or the Westchester Summer Community Theater production of Smile.
We are ushered into a third holding area, where, for the first time in two hours, we’ll actually be filmed for television. This third holding area is what you think of when you think of America’s Got Talent—blue carpets, bright lights reading “America’s Got Talent!,” an eclectic collection of children and several costumed adults practicing their routines and shmoozing. The room is surrounded by cameras, and producers are running around, setting up interesting shots and plucking various people (a drag queen, a clown who I overhear is a regular at these things, a little girl in a Russian dance costume) to perform, or be prominently featured in shots.
I choose the first empty seat I see to sit down and start eating a banana. From what I glean, auditioners are left here to put final touches on their makeup and very publicly and aggressively prepare for their auditions. If a producer asks you to get up and perform for a camera, you get up and perform for a camera.
I also learn that I have inadvertently chosen a seat in the front row, in other words, directly in front of the one row of cameras filming the room. This row, I’m observing, is reserved for the most charismatic and remarkably-dressed of the auditioners, and people who look like me (in all black, actively frowning) are often asked to move to a seat deeper in the crowd. Somehow, I’m not asked to move, but others around me are, meaning I will almost certainly be on the show’s premiere Tuesday evening if they use any sort of footage from the New York City auditions. I am positioned between an adult clown, a guy in bright red, and another man dressed in a suit of sequins, and I hear a producer tell them to act like they’re talking.
“You’re in sequins, and I’m in bright red and we’re still not the craziest ones in the room,” one says, improvising capably.
Another man in a black-and-white skunk hat gets our attention, “HOW YA DOIN’ LADIES AND GENTLEMEN?” I turn to him, hoping to hear directions or some kind of update. It turns out he’s auditioning too—he’s just trying to be a character. He’s standing next to a man in a Union officer uniform holding a 10-foot-long flag pole and American flag. If I close my eyes, I might hallucinate that I’m in the 1800s in a barren battle field, but I can’t concentrate on this hallucination, or any, because of the thick cloud of hairspray and historic thirst.
Later, a white belly dancer in full body paint is placed in a group of children. She says to a boy in glasses, “You have beautiful eyes.” He says, “Thank you.” A successful interaction.
Around me, auditioners and their supporters are having tricks done to them by magicians and clowns and acrobats (including the girls in the bubble bath), and are patiently acting surprised and wowed, even when they might want to work on their own material—because, as of now, we have no idea when we’ll be called to audition, who it will be in front of, or whether or not it will be taped (although it occurs to me that a portion of people came to audition simply to be filmed in this holding room watching other people, like it’s its own form of free, highly-inconvenient entertainment).
I soon become one of the auditioners forced to witness, when a teenage mentalist named Alex asks to film a trick with me for his YouTube channel. I participate, and have since located the footage, below:
One producer is polling the auditioners surrounding me about what they think of the judges. I hope he asks me because I have some great quips saved up that might be fun to air on television. He doesn’t ask. I think it might be because I look like a normal adult, but in my heart I suspect it’s because I look boring.
At this point I have done, redone, taken off, and done again my makeup upwards of 10 times. I have eavesdropped on conversations that range from awkward to boring, between break dancers and stilt walkers, and 1,000 teenage singers. I have eaten all my snacks and slurped all my water. When I feel I cannot possibly go on, a range of numbers that includes mine is called, and I get up, sick with nausea, and follow a producer-led parade of auditioners down stairs, outside, and into yet another building (!), where—you guessed it—we are brought to another holding area.
This holding area is not on camera—our chance at fame was left behind in the last building—and is in the college’s cafeteria. It has a snack bar where you can buy hot food and chips and several vending machines. Now, the clowns and magicians that were once so animatedly performing for cameras in the other room become human. They sit in the rows of plastic chairs here, dejectedly looking at their phones or taking a nap like they’re at the DMV. It is highly depressing and I am sapped of my energy and mediocre attitude.
It is very clear how that one girl who is the best singer in her grade, that one who is encouraged by her chorus teacher to audition, stacks up against the competition here. In the past four hours, I’ve seen at least 100 of them, and they all basically look and sound the same. I weep for them in my heart, and begin to fear I am one of them, even though I’m not a singer, nor am I in high school (I am a large adult, which isn’t better), but, in the end, I came here too. I have waited far too long to be able to maintain any kind of ironic detachment or sense of humor about the process.
I see the girl with the Orthodox Jewish father who cut me in line and peek at her paperwork. I’m five numbers ahead of her, and I feel a surge of spiteful joy.
After a bit of internal debate I purchase a red apple wrapped in plastic and a French Vanilla coffee, a flavor I hate. They are both inedible, and I throw them in the garbage.
I am now almost inconsolably depressed, and also angry. How dare America’s Got Talent make Americans think they got talent, when, in reality, only like 10 Americans got talent and they are the Americans that win the show? And even those Americans don’t go on to do anything particularly impressive, since I can’t name a single one except for Nick Cannon?
One woman approaches a producer, claiming she has misplaced her ID sticker which is stuck to the front of every other person. How can she expect to got talent if she can’t even follow simple instructions and hold onto her ID sticker? If your one shot at fame involved holding onto a sticker that should be stuck to you for five hours, don’t you think you’d be able to do it?!
I am filled with despair. This is the American dream, and the American disappointment: a bunch of people who are convinced they got talent, so convinced that they drive (or take a grotesquely expensive car) to Flushing, Queens at the tit crack of dawn, only to wait for hours, ignored, in a miserable school cafeteria. And what happens when they finally get called? They’ll probably be rejected by the first set of screeners, and never do their act for more than a producer’s assistant in a closet. They’ll probably go find their mom, if they’re so lucky and were able to bring their mom, in the waiting room and then they’ll leave and go buy a tuna salad sandwich at a Duane Reade and talk about what a good experience this all was.
But was it, though? What is there to gain from this humiliation, except for crippling sadness, minor constipation, and a better idea of just how small I am—I mean, we all are? How can anyone even manage to got talent after this morning of nearly-endless humiliations and degradation? And I have a job! Why do I need this extra validation? Can’t I just stick to writing “kind of funny” blog posts about tweets and die without ceremony?!
An elderly cross-eyed woman eats a sandwich while staring at me, or just past me.
A producer calls my range of numbers. I am filled with supreme dread—my face is dead white and cold as I float over to where I’ve been called, following her and the rest of my group out of this building, down a sidewalk, up some steps and into another one. We are led into a hallway with a line of chairs placed across the wall. We are to sit in these chairs until we are called to go into a classroom in groups of ten (minors with their parents), and do our act for another producer. When it is done, we are to leave. We don’t know when we’ll find out if we made it or not. Neither Heidi Klum nor Howie Mandel nor Mel B are anywhere to be seen. I hear the children around me mutter disappointedly, but I cannot console them, because I am an adult, and I am also disappointed.
I say my act in my head several times, and then resolve to buck the hell up. I have spent the morning on my own, but have somehow reached my destination smack in between the girl with the “Pereoid 4″ folder and her father, and the 12-year-old aspiring SINGER OR AC-TA-RESS and her mother. If these young girls, now my daughters and sisters in struggle, can do this, then so can I.
We are called in. I am the last member of my group, meaning “Pereoid 4,” who is behind me, will not be coming in with my group. It also means, I learn in a moment, that I am the finale of my audition section. Comprising my group of 10—I kid you not—are nine children and their parents, and me. I am the only adult who will perform for our producer, a nice-looking man with a beard and a newsboy cap. I think that he is the first person I’ve felt any sort of kinship with all day, but that’s probably because he is closest to my age.
Of the nine teens in the group, most are singers, and some are quite good. Two people sing “How Far I’ll Go,” from Moana, and one girl nearly cries. One teen boy does an impressive Stomp-esque percussion set with a cup and a pencil, and even though he asks to start over because he messed up, I assume that he also could be brought in for the next round. The 12-year-old SINGER and AC-TA-RESS is, unfortunately, not so good, but had a lot of spirit. I start to loosen up—I am in a very weird situation and I am at least 10 years older than anyone else in the room (except for parents). Fuck it.
After everyone else has performed, the producer calls my name. “You’re doing comedy? Let’s keep it clean, okay?” he advises. I give him a very cool laugh, like we are on the same team, and then I perform the following set with a charisma produced exclusively from one bite of mealy apple and six hours of crushing existential confusion. Here’s what I performed (much of it lies), as I have it written down:
I am so excited to be auditioning for America’s Got Talent. I just love these judges. Heidi Klum? The most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen. Mel B? I’ve loved her my whole life.
But I’ve always wondered, what is a Scary Spice? If you’re Donald Trump, every spice is scary, because he’s such a xenophobe.
Actually, it’s probably salt because of the heart disease.
I’m seven-to-12 pounds overweight depending on whether… you ask my mom or my dad. Just kidding, they haven’t looked at me in a decade. Uch! I’m kidding again, we live together. Well, I live in their basement. Okay, I’m squatting in their basement—I’m squatting in a basement, can we please stop talking about the abandoned basement I’m squatting in?
I live in New York City—single and hating it. So I’ve been watching a lot of rom-coms. Do you ever notice how in rom-coms, the girl and the guy are rivals before they get together? Like, she’s the owner of an independent bookstore on the Upper West Side, and he’s the head of the family… of raccoons that live outside her bookstore.
Anyway, when I walk around New York, I’m always trying to make an enemy because I know that guy will eventually be my husband.
I black out most of the performance, although I notice a smattering of friendly laughs from the parents in the room, and a marked absence of any teen laughs. When I sit back down in my desk chair after my set, a mom makes eye contact with me and gives me a round of silent applause. I really need it, since, if you don’t remember, I came here alone.
Moments later, the producer tells us something like, “We’ve had a lot of amazingly talented people come out this year and unfortunately we won’t be able to take any of you, but thanks for coming out.” We are uniformly shocked, I think, that not a single person makes it through—even the cup percussionist—but there is nothing we can do, no complaints we can file or envelopes to double check. So we pick up our bags and jet.
As I walk out of the classroom, I see Pereoid 4 and her dad, waiting first in line to learn how quickly a morning of waiting and months of preparation could be spoiled; the extent of their wasted time. But before I can get very far, I hear, “Joanna—” It is my bearded producer, whose name I never learned. “Hang back a sec.”
Son of a pumpkin (keeping it family friendly), this is it. I knew I wasn’t like any of these other untalented teens!!! First of all, I was an adult. And second, I got talent! Joanna’s Got Talent is the name of this show!!!
While I’m waiting for the teens and their parents to shuffle out of the room, I make eye contact with Pereoid 4’s dad. He gives me an encouraging nod and I give him one right back. We are family, and with this one minuscule bit of reassurance, I am suddenly immortal and better than. How easily I forget the stripped-down reality of my own mortality that had become so clear in the cafeteria.
He calls me back into the classroom and closes the door, and for almost ten minutes, we are in there alone. An America’s Got Talent producer and me, an American who’s got talent. He says, “So, what else do you have?”
“You’re a standup right?”
“So, give me more material. I want to hear more.”
Haha, fuck, this is where it ends—by my own unpreparedness.
“I just prepared that little set—I assumed I’d go home and write more if I got through,” I try.
“Come on, you must have something.”
He isn’t going to let me leave until I gave him more. I have no more. We are at an impasse. What am I to do? I tell him I am a full time writer and write funny essays, and can read him one of those if he liked. “Funny essays? What?” he counters. “Just do something.”
It is at this point that I completely lose memory of what I say or how I say it. What I do know is that I attempt to recite, from memory, this essay about my woke baby, that when read aloud I know to be supremely unfunny. When recited from memory, poorly, it is even less funny. I also know that while I tried, he maintained an expression of amused patience. I really fucked this one up.
He tells me that I’m funny (oh please!), that I’m playing a character (sure I am!), that I look like Dakota Johnson and has anyone ever told me that before? (only Jezebel commenters and Kelly Stout!). He also tells me that he can’t send me through without more material and that it “wasn’t really right for our main stage anyway.” A rejection, but a personalized one!!! He also tells me that I should “keep working on my material.”
I want to kiss his mouth and fly back to Manhattan with my own wings. I leave the room knowing full well that I have been intoxicated by the briefest glimmer of my own specialness; that I am no better than the clown who goes to every talent show audition just to be noticed one time. I will die, just like Alex the Mentalist, and that white belly dancer, and one thousand dance teams. But, for one second on January 27, I was noticed, which is, in America, the best you can hope for.
This season of America’s Got Talent will premiere tonight at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.
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